The Two Writing Skillsets

I find a lot of comfort in the idea of a writer’s growth into skill. I believe that if you write frequently, practice, never give up, and try new things, you will eventually attain the skill you are meant to have. I believe that anyone can be as good a writer as they want (though, I suppose, certain artistic deities among us may have a talent we can never claim).

But I think that there are actually two fundamental and different skillsets that a writer must develop, and I think that the way we talk about them—or don’t talk about them—has a great impact on how we view a writer’s skill.

  1. Text

The skill of “text” is the writing itself. Words, vocabulary, sentence patterns, grammar, etc. Though the line may be blurred, you could include things like transitions, pacing, and paragraph length in this category as well.

The thing about “text” skill is that it’s relatively easy to spot, and easy to quantify. You can read a paragraph of someone’s writing and know fairly quickly how good they are. Of course, certain stylistic choices might make good writing sound simple, or bad writing sound elegant, but the fact remains that there is a fundamental skillset in writing good text.

I happen to think this skillset can be developed with greater ease. Reading widely, learning more vocabulary, studying grammatical rules and choices—all can make your text read better.

Learning how to write bad text in a first draft is a fundamental skill, and learning how to revise it into something better is probably what most people think of when they think of revision and editing.

But there’s a skillset much deeper and more elusive than text alone.

  1. Content

The skill of “content” is what the writing is about. It’s the plot, the characters, the scenes, the setting. It’s what the words describe and bring to life.

Many people can write beautiful sentences about nothing. Many people can also dream up original characters and incredible worlds but be unable to describe them well. The skillsets of content are much more complex—but I don’t want to suggest that they are somehow superior, or more innate, than those of text. I just think they’re harder to quantify, and thus harder to develop.

I think we expend a lot of energy thinking and talking about skills of text. At least, it’s what I think about when I think of writing badly in a draft; it’s what I think about when it comes to revision. But the skills of content are absolutely vital, and much more difficult to pin down.

What exactly makes a well-drawn character? What makes a complex plot? The issue is that pinpointing what other people have done well does not necessarily increase your own skill—because, sometimes, the best you can do is simply copy what they have done. How do you develop your own skill for content from observing others? How do you build those skills on your own?

I think the answer, as with most things, is time and practice. Observation and reading is a vital start to learning those skills, but at some point, all you’ll know is what others have done (and, depending on your views on originality, what you cannot do). I think you have to just keep trying, throwing out stories and characters and seeing what happens. Abandon all desire for quality and originality and just write, and learn from your own writing. What worked? What didn’t? With your own work, at least, you can use it however you please in the future.

There’s a lot of patience involved in developing as a writer (or any artist, I would imagine). Getting frustrated and giving up is the only way you’ll never improve.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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2 Responses to The Two Writing Skillsets

  1. I was in fanfic for five years and it was a very rare occasion that I came across beautiful prose. I can think of five stories out of 30,000+ that had beautiful prose XD My standards are pretty high though, and I don’t meet my own much of the time :$ It was much more common to come across a well written story with plain or just okay prose. And there was tons of awkward prose, myself included, especially in the early years XD I have more trouble with the story element. I have written two short original fiction stories and I feel like I’m getting better at writing stories than I used to be. I spent more effort on my prose than the actual story-telling.

    I feel like writing is similar to ballet. I was training to be a professional dancer as a kid and taught for many years. Balanchine has a quote about dancers being born and not made. Certain people are just born with the right attributes, high arches, hip dysplasia, hyperextended legs, etc. If you have flat feet it doesn’t matter how much training you have, it’s almost impossible to do pointe work. If you have deep hip sockets it doesn’t matter how much you stretch, your turnout will always be poor. That being said, even the children with the perfect ballet body need years and years of discipline in order to become great. I think writing is similar in that sense. McCarthy was born to be a writer, so was Atwood. But I’m sure McCarthy had awkward prose when he began. So was Stephen King, but he can’t and probably doesn’t want to write poetic prose. Well, that’s my opinion on it. I think as writers we can all improve, so I set a goal like this for myself. I want to improve instead of I want to be a great writer.

    • J. Sevick says:

      I definitely think accepting that improving as a writer takes time (and writing) has been a major contributing factor to my recent productivity–so I agree. Improving is the best goal, rather than greatness or (the impossible) perfection. 🙂

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